One of the best and most successful bands to have formed at the University of York in recent years, The Mountaineering Club are definitely an act to watch. Having graduated last year, the group have released an EP, This Coldest Winter, and have played a bunch of summer festivals, including End of the Road. I caught up with Tom Adams, singer and guitarist, and Leo Plunkett, beat-maker and saxophonist, after their recent appearance at the URY Easter Extravaganza at the Courtyard.
How was the band formed? Was it due to a shared interest in music or in mountaineering?
Tom Adams: It was definitely music. If we put as much time in to going hiking as we do in to writing music then there is a good chance we could be half-way up Everest by now…
Your music incorporates traditional instruments and a great deal of electronics. How does this inform the songwriting process?
Tom: Mostly I write a lot of the more ‘song-based’ material on the piano and with hardware drum machines/samplers. I then take it to the other guys and we then all sit down in the studio and produce everything in Ableton and Logic Mainstage. I find the writing process on hardware much more intuitive than staring at a computer, but once we have got it all into the software it is much easier to raise our production values and share ideas.
Leo Plunkett: The other way we write is to just start from one synth sound or one beat and just improvise with it, gradually layering up sounds until we have a track. These tracks are the best live because they have less rigid structures giving us freedom to improvise and play about with it, keeping the show interesting!
Mountaineering and various mountaineers are an immediately clear lyrical influence. Where does this come from?
Leo: With TMC, our focus is on the music and its impact, rather than the lyrics. However, because we naturally try to make our music feel epic and widescreen, writing a few songs about polar and mountain exploration and famous explorers seems logical.
Tom: I find stories of exploration and human endeavor really inspiring. I’m a keen outdoors person and it’s a great feeling when you are out on a hillside, miles away from internet and email. A lot of the music we write in some way, shape or form is trying to convey that feeling. It’s an approach to making music that we have borrowed from post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky and others.
I know that you all have fingers in other musical pies, so to speak, The Mountaineering Club Orchestra being a standout example. Does this inform or feed into your work as The Mountaineering Club?
Tom: The original concept for The Mountaineering Club Orchestra was to write an instrumental that we could play as a band and with as many classical musicians as possible. Although I wrote/produced the whole album as a solo effort, when it came out it got a lot of good press and as a result we have started to incorporate ideas and sounds from it in to our regular TMC writing.
Leo: We are all involved in other projects, I have an ambient audio/visual group called Can Unite Nations Tonight that I play in. I am also starting up a gap-step project and if that goes well I will definitely start feeding back elements of that into TMC. As well as The Mountaineering Club Orchestra, Tom also has his main solo project Toma which is more straight-ahead post rock, and is part of a live ambient project called Hollow Mountain. Everything we do outside the band feeds in to our sound, so if someone has been playing a lot of saxophone recently then we start writing saxophone into more tunes, that kind of thing.
In a live setting, your music is noticeably more bass-heavy and, it could be said, club-ready than it is on record. As a band, do you find walking the tightrope between ‘dance’ music and ‘headphone’ or ‘lounge’ music difficult?
Leo: That is interesting, because we talk about this a lot when writing songs. We mostly write new material with the intention of playing it live. One of the great things about the way we perform from laptops is that we can adjust our sound for the event. If we are playing with load of rock-y bands then we make the beats and synths heavier and more compressed, but if we are playing with more ambient and chilled out bands then we can dial back on the intensity of our sounds to suit the vibe.
You have played some festivals, a fair few shows and released an EP. What else is in the works?
Tom: We have a single coming out on the 18th April – a new version of our track ‘Mallory’ – and will feature a series of remixes. Otherwise, the big thing for us that we have just started working on is our debut album. We have been testing a lot of new songs live and it has got to the point where we are happy enough with them to start recording. Once we have got the album sounding as good as we can get it, the plan is to approach some record labels and try to get support/funding for a proper release and a tour to promote it.
You formed at the University of York, same as this magazine. Did this influence you at all?
Tom: Yes, with the exception of one member of the band we all studied music here. Although the course was great, forming the Mountaineering Club was in part a reaction against formal music study. When we formed, the music scene on campus and York in general was not great so we ended up going to Leeds a lot to play.
Leo: When we came back recently to play a gig at the Courtyard, it felt like there was a lot more going on for live music on campus (like Circulation Magazine!) which is a really good thing.
What do you think about university, YUSU and student support of bands formed at the university?
Tom: When we first came to York there was no music venue other than the college bars. Since then, the Courtyard has opened and started bringing in some pretty decent acts (like Submotion Orchestra, what a great gig that was!). It feels like there is more going on for live music, and more opportunities for student bands to play.
Leo: There is also Woodstock! We really enjoyed playing there last year.
Finally, as one of the best campus acts of recent years, do you have any advice for current or future campus acts?
Leo: For us, starting to play gigs in Leeds was a really important step as there were a lot more nights focused on our kind of music and a lot more people interested in hearing it, so definitely look further afield for gigs.
Tom: Go DIY! If you are getting CDs made in anything less than a run of 200+ then it is probably going to be much cheaper (and cooler) if you hand-make them. Our first run of EPs were printed at Copy & Print on campus and we just spend an afternoon cutting, gluing and personalizing them all. Also, unless you have got a massive string section or a drummer with an excessive number of toms, its probably not worth paying for studio time. If you don’t know anything about recording yourself then contact the music/music tech department and ask them to send an email round. There are always students and post-grads who are looking for good music and would probably be happy to record you if you buy them a pint or two. You just have to get pro-active about making things happen.
This Coldest Winter is available from http://themountaineeringclub.bandcamp.com/
The Mountaineering Club Orchestra’s EP, A Start on Such a Night is Full of Promise, is available for free at http://themountaineeringcluborchestra.bandcamp.com/